17 April 2018

Hungary’s opposition face an uphill battle against authoritarianism


Viktor Orbán’s victory in Hungary’s recent parliamentary election was not fair and he is not going to play nice in his third consecutive term. Those who are worried about the fate of democracy in Hungary have to get used to that reality and get to work quickly.

Protest marches in Budapest, like the one we saw on Saturday, might fulfil an important therapeutic role but they are no substitute for effective political action.

Although Mr Orbán is a talented and ruthless politician, his takeover has been more than helped by the opposition’s divisions, incompetence and lack of leadership. Mass protests ring more than a bit hollow considering that a few days ago Mr Orban’s Fidesz party gained a two-thirds majority in a free and non-fraudulent (though unfair) parliamentary election, at a record-high turnout.

A quick note on fairness. Back in 2012, a new electoral law changed the rules of the game in Fidesz’s favour by re-districting the country and increasing the number of single-mandate constituencies in which the largest party enjoyed a natural advantage over its challengers.

As a result Fidesz now enjoys a supermajority despite receiving a little less than 50 per cent the popular vote. Mr Orbán also controls the vast majority of media outlets in the country, either directly or through a network of party-connected oligarchs. After the election, even the government’s leading critic, the former Fidesz-affiliated oligarch Lajos Simicska, has decided to cut his losses and close down the opposition outlets he had been bankrolling.

Still, the opposition parties could have worked around the skewed electoral rules by coordinating more closely and backing the strongest opposition candidates in each district. They chose not to, in part because that would involve working with the once neo-fascist Jobbik movement, which came second in the election with over a million votes.

Make no mistake, the risk of Hungary’s sliding towards fully-fledged authoritarianism is substantial. Besides gaming electoral rules and taking control of media and state apparatus including the judiciary, Fidesz also operates a vast network of patronage, in which party-connected businesses receive privileged access to public tenders, including those funded by the EU. Mr Orbán has made it no secret that he intends to tighten the screw – a few days after the election a pro-government outlet published a list of ‘Soros mercenaries’, printed in white on a black background with the thinly veiled purpose of intimidating the government’s critics, including NGO workers and academics at the Soros-funded Central European University.

What should be the response of Hungary’s opposition? For one, stop indulging in fantasies. Not so long ago, many put their faith the Momentum Movement, founded by a group of young Hungarian professionals who successfully derailed Mr Orbán’s bid to host the Olympic games in Budapest. The movement promised not only to build a political alternative to Fidesz but also to rebuild politics from the ground up, giving a new role to spontaneous grassroots engagement as opposed to rigid party structures. In this parliamentary election, Momentum received 3 per cent of the popular vote.

Instead of hubris, the centrist liberal opposition needs to invest in conventional party structures that reach outside of the capital and can recruit candidates with local bona fides. It also needs to accept that Jobbik is a political force to be reckoned with. Without building coalitions and always backing the most promising anti-Fidesz candidate in every election, local or national, it will be impossible to ever weaken Mr Orbán’s hold on power.

Fidesz’s defeat is not going to come from the outside and certainly not in the form of a ‘rule of law’ procedure of the kind initiated against Poland by the European Commission. That said, it is hard to see why the European People’s Party keeps indulging Fidesz’s excesses – and also why the blatant politicisation of EU funds and their use for domestic corruption and patronage in new EU member states has not led to a serious rethink.

One external force that can make a difference is the Hungarian diaspora in Western Europe. The departure of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, driven overwhelmingly by a lack of economic opportunities at home, has been a loss to Hungary but has served Mr Orbán well. The overwhelmingly young and educated demographic group could not only be a political force in its own right, but also a source of funding for independent media and for budding political movements at home, independent of the trappings of the heavily politicised Hungarian economy.

The next four years will decide whether Hungary becomes the Turkey, or Russia of Central Europe. And unless opposition, civil society and ordinary Hungarians who value liberal democracy step up their game significantly, it is going to be an uphill battle.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.